What is metacognition?
The Education Endowment Foundation describes metacognition as explicitly thinking about learning; pupils need to be taught metacognitive strategies and reflect on how they are learning to be metacognitive.
Can we teach, learn and practise metacognition?
Metacognitive strategies can be taught, learned, and practised within regular curriculum content that should be sufficiently and appropriately challenging. Strategies can be both individual and collaborative and with practice, will reap long-lasting benefits for the learner. Learners will be more independent, self-managing and organised and have powerful learning tools at their disposal.
In the International Curriculum, we have selected four learning theories that form a progressive pedagogy that drives teaching for effective learning. These learning theories include brain-based learning and metacognition which manifest differently across each educational phase. However, at any age, they have a major impact on improving learning.
Metacognition in the Early Years
The International Curriculum identifies 3 key approaches to support metacognitive development in the early years’ phase:
- Repeating experiences allows children to anticipate and adapt their intentions and actions.
- Revisiting experiences enables children to recall significant aspects or details of their prior experiences.
- Reflecting on experiences supports children to make judgements and plans from their prior experiences.
This hierarchy is used to inform and guide teaching teams and parents with the reflective thinking and responsive teaching needed to improve children’s ability to lead their own learning.
Teacher use of narration, modelling, displays and learning journals support children to become aware of their thinking and learning. These visual records of learning provide a nurturing context for sustained shared thinking, promoting explicit awareness in children of their own metacognitive capabilities.
Metacognition and agency are mutually reinforcing; as children become more aware of their own thinking, they are better able to lead and adapt their own playful learning experiences. Learning environments should provoke and nurture child-initiated experiences allowing teachers to respond to children’s emerging pathways of learning in ways that extend thinking and support ongoing agency.
Metacognition in Primary
While learning about the brain and metacognitive strategies covers the knowledge and understanding of the art and science of learning, it is essential that learners can apply strategies throughout the curriculum and put metacognition into action.
“Sharing explicit learning goals helps children know where they are headed.”
Reflection is part of any learning process and a requisite skill for successful metacognition. Reflective questions guide learners to plan, monitor and evaluate, promoting metacognition before, during and after learning. Prior to learning, children can consider, ‘What do I already know (have experienced/observed) about this?’ They can plan the next steps in their learning including identifying whether they need help or resources to get started. Teachers are encouraged to model this process of planning through thinking out loud, asking themselves questions and vocalising wonderings.
During learning, children need to monitor how they are being successful in their learning. Sharing explicit learning goals helps children know where they are headed. Collaborative monitoring can be particularly effective as children can explain to others what they are doing and why. This facilitates them checking they have understood the learning intention and may provide inspiration for alternative approaches.
Evaluating asks learners to think about how they learned and how effective they think their approach was. This can be supported by assessment strategies and tools such as rubrics or comparing to exemplars of learning products. Post-learning questions can also challenge children to transfer learning, make connections and consider the relevance and significance of what they have learned. All of these contribute to both a deeper understanding of the learning process and consolidating what has been learned.
Metacognition in the Middle years
As students approach the middle years, they must increase the application of metacognitive skills to support their teenage needs. In the various subjects, each teacher should plan for, provide, and reflect on strategies to boost metacognition awareness in learning.
“Teachers should encourage self-generated feedback to build on and extend learning.”
One way to do this is to define and promote a growth mindset among students, constantly reinforcing that learning is not something that is fixed. Prompting students to change their self-critical internal monologue and negative language has value here. Instead of a mathematics problem being “too hard”, enforcing a growth mindset helps students to recognise that the same problem may instead be a “challenge” worth seeking support or finding strategies to answer.
Teachers should encourage self-generated feedback to build on and extend learning and can model this by sharing their thinking aloud. Once a growth mindset permeates the middle school classroom, other students’ success becomes inspiring (as opposed to threatening) and something to learn from.
In contrast, it can be common for adolescents to overestimate their understanding of a topic, and some previously taught learning strategies may need challenging and adapting. For example, passively re-reading a text and highlighting passages are not the most effective ways to help with deeper learning. Teaching alternatives—such as self-quizzing or self-assessment checklists—may help improve less effective learning strategies.
Having read this article, it may now be time to ask yourself: What place do metacognitive strategies have in your classroom and how could you introduce them and improve learning?